The early evening darkness from resetting our clocks combined with the chilly mornings make me think of sunny places. And wine from sunny places, too. We’ve been opening our wine from Meridiana Wine Estate in Malta, which is pretty much as warm and sunny as we get with our wines.
You probably haven’t thought about Malta as a place for growing wine grapes and making wine, and before we began importing from Malta, I hadn’t either. It turns out that in the past, virtually all Maltese wine was made using imported wine grapes or local table grapes with added sugar. The sugar is necessary with most table grapes because they aren’t sweet enough to produce wine even with 12% alcohol. In fact, if you eat a wine grape of any varietal – Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. — you’d be surprised at how sweet it is.
Of course, you can make wine by adding sugar to table grapes, and it might even be OK, but it won’t have the complexity and depth of flavor that you’d get from real wine grapes. Believe it or not, Malta has the soil and climate for producing great wine grapes — but it took a chance conversation between a beverage company manager and a wine expert to get the process started.
Mark Miceli-Farrugia’s family had been in the beverage business since 1928, not only brewing beer and trading in wines, but Mark’s father developed the formula for Kinnie, Malta’s most popular soft drink. Mark traveled the world for the business, and of course met plenty of people making and selling wine. But in 1985, he met with an oenologist in Bordeaux who persuaded him that Malta could produce high-quality wines.
In 1987, in partnership with Marchese Piero Antinori – the head of a well-known Italian winemaking family – Mark began experimenting with wine grapes to see what would do best in Malta’s climate and soil. The wine estate was planted in 1994 and 1995 with international grape varietals. The harvests in the late 1990s were all successful and the winery produces Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon (both single-varietal and blended with Merlot), Syrah, and Merlot from French clones.
While all of these wines taste like they come from their respective grapes, they definitely benefit from the hot, dry summers in Malta. The effect is that they taste a little more intensely fruity than their French counterparts. And unlike their French cousins, the grapes from Malta are irrigated with water collected during the rains that fall between October and March because there isn’t enough rain in the summertime (in fact, there’s rarely any at all – just hot, beautiful days). Precise control of temperature during fermentation ensures that the wines retain their proper balance and acidity.
Mark defines Meridiana’s mission as producing world-class wines that retain a sense of the place they came from; in a sense the wines are ambassadors for their country. As is Mark himself: in 2007, he became the Maltese Ambassador to the U.S. And while he doesn’t run Meridiana anymore, he and his wife Josette serve Meridiana wine at the embassy and at their home, which is where I got to taste it.
First Vine imports two Meridiana wines. The 2008 Isis Chardonnay ($22) is aged in steel, and has deep apricot fruit flavors while still retaining the crispness you expect from the grape not aged in oak. If I were Ina Garten (and of course sometimes I think I am), I’d call it a white Burgundy with the volume turned up. Any way you look at it, the Isis is a great wine and will make Chardonnay drinkers out of even the die-hard haters. The Melqart ($25) is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, and the 2005 vintage is just now beginning to show its lushness. While it’s a Bordeaux-style blend, many Bordeaux wines these days have a greater proportion of Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon, to soften the blend and make them drinkable sooner. One evening, Josette served us an older Melqart to show us what the future holds. It was rich and delicious, which means the 2005 should keep nicely for many years to come.
This week’s recipe is for stuffed zucchini, and it’s the meal Josette served Cy and me when we got to taste the magical Melqart (how’s that for alliteration?) It’s called Qara’ baghli mimli bil-laham in Maltese, and this version came originally from Recipes from Malta: A Guide to Traditional Maltese Cookery by Anne and Helen Caruana Galizia. Josette has modified the recipe significantly from the original, and I’ve modified it further. When I tried making it myself, I didn’t get the fine texture that the Micelis served me. So I thought that I could either chop the ground meat for the stuffing more finely, or I could use a trick I learned from making Cincinnati Chili – mixing the beef with some water to give a finer texture, then lightly boiling and draining it. That turned out to be the key to getting the right texture. I also added some cinnamon, a spice also found in Cincinnati Chili, which gives a little warmth and also hearkens back to Malta’s Middle-Eastern history.
Traditionally, this dish is served over roasted sliced potatoes, and I’ve included instructions for baking those along with the zucchini. But it’s also delicious served with rice that’s cooked with diced dried apricots and topped with toasted sliced almonds. Because it’s mostly zucchini, you can serve either the Isis or the Melqart with the dish. Or if you’re like me and don’t want to make that kind of arduous decision, invite friends over and serve both. You won’t be in Malta, but you’ll be feeling mighty warm!
2 pounds medium-sized zucchini (5 or 6 of them)
1-1/4 pounds ground beef
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely minced
2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut in small dice (canned is fine)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more to taste
Salt and pepper
Optional potato base: 2 or 3 large baking potatoes, scrubbed and peeled, sliced fairly thin, mixed with 2 to 3 tablespoons of melted butter and some salt and pepper. Layer the potatoes in a greased 13 x 9 –inch glass or ceramic baking pan. Bake in a preheated 375-degree F oven for 45 minutes to an hour while you prepare the zucchini. Stir the potatoes gently a couple of times during baking. They should be almost tender by the time you put the stuffed zucchini on top to bake them.
Cut the ends off the zucchini. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, lower the zucchini into the pot, and boil gently for five minutes. Drain the zucchini and set them aside to cool a little so you can handle them. Cut the zucchini in half crosswise, then cut each piece in half lengthwise. Using a small spoon (a grapefruit spoon works well), cut a trench in each piece, being careful not to cut all the way through. You’ll have hollow, short lengths of zucchini for stuffing. Set the parts you scoop out aside and chop them finely.
Put the beef in a medium-sized saucepan (preferably nonstick) with 3 cups of cold water. Using your hands, mix the beef and water, squeezing the meat so that it separates into fine pieces. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring with a spoon to make sure it doesn’t clump together. When it comes to a boil, lower the heat and continue to cook for another couple of minutes. The meat should just start to lose its red or pink color. Drain the meat through a fine strainer and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet and sauté the onion with some salt and pepper for about 8 minutes, until they’re soft but not browned. Add the reserved chopped zucchini and the tomatoes, raise the heat, and cook until the zucchini is almost dry. Add the drained meat, the Worcestershire, paprika, and the 1/8 teaspoon each of cayenne and cinnamon. Raise the heat to medium and cook for about 10 minutes, until the meat is cooked through and the mixture is just a little moist (you can add some water to it while cooking if you need to). Taste it, and add more cayenne, cinnamon, salt, and pepper to your taste.
Let the filling cool until it’s just lightly warm to the touch, then stir in the eggs and parmesan cheese. Fill the zucchini halves with the mixture, mounding slightly in the middle. Place the filled zucchini on top of the roasting potatoes if you’re using them, otherwise place them in a greased 13 x 9 – inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Sprinkle the tops lightly with breadcrumbs and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the zucchini are just cooked through and the tops are just a little browned.